How can research improve the lives of livestock, even as they’re on their way to slaughter? In episode 67, Temple Grandin from the Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences talks with us about her work on promoting improved communications between academic researchers and those in the animal agriculture industry. We discuss her article “Crossing the divide between academic research and practical application of ethology and animal behavior information on commercial livestock and poultry farms,” which she published on June 28, 2019 in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
Websites and other resources
- Temple’s website and Twitter
- Her article “Why visual thinking is a different approach to problem solving” (Forbes)
- CSU article: “Temple Grandin: CSU’s one-of-a-kind mind“
- Temple’s patent, “Animal stunning system prior to slaughter,” her discussion of it, and her “squeeze machine“
- Feature film: Temple Grandin (2010)
- TED talk:
Media and press
- Science Friday video on Temple’s life and research:
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Hosts / Producers
Ryan Watkins & Doug Leigh
How to Cite
Watkins, R., Leigh, D., & Grandin, T.. (2020). Parsing Science – Ivory Towers and Abattoirs. figshare. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.11816607
What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers
Temple Grandin: The Special Ed Department builds the stuff. And when I was out working in construction – (in the) mid 70s, 80s, and 90s – I’m gonna estimate a quarter of the people that I worked with in welding and in design work were either autistic, dyslexic, or ADHD.
Ryan Watkins: This is Parsing Science: the unpublished stories behind the world’s most compelling science, as told by the researcher themselves. I’m Ryan Watkins.
Doug Leigh: And I’m Doug Leigh. Today, in episode 67 of Parsing Science, we’re joined by animal science professor, livestock industry consultant, and autism spokesperson Temple Grandin. She’ll talk with us about her work crossing the divide between academic studies of animal behavior and their practical application in commercial livestock and poultry farms. Here’s Temple Grandin.
Grandin: Hi, I’m Temple Grandin, and I am professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. I was raised in Boston, Massachusetts. I originally came from a non-ag(riculture) background, and I got involved in the cattle industry because I went out to my aunt’s ranch when I was a teenager. Which brings up the really important thing: that students get interested in things they get exposed to.
Leigh: Temple’s article asserts that the application of two concepts – ethology and stockmanship – are essential to bridging animal science research and practice. So we began our conversation by asking her to explain these terms and why they’re so important in farms, ranches, and ultimately slaughterhouses, which are also referred to as abattoirs.Topics hide
Ethology and stockmanship
Grandin: Well, ethology is the science of the study of animal behavior out in their natural environments: what the animals do when you put them out in an environment – like cattle out on pasture – you might look at the ethology of the grazing habits. In laying hens, for example, the hen has an instinct to lay her egg in a secluded place where she’s hidden. That’s a natural behavior. And then you have learned behavior – you might have operant conditioning – clicker training a dog, for example. That’s strictly learning. But ethology covers behavior under natural conditions. And then you have stockmanship, the ability of a person to be good at handling animals.
So people oftentimes want the magic thing – like the fancy new cattle handling facility – more than they want the stockmanship to go with it. Which is they well-trained person who knows how to use behavioral principles, such as point of balance, to move cattle. Like, for example, if they’re in the chute. If you stand in front of the animal, it’s not going to go forward. Now, that seems obvious, but those are sort of things that we have to teach the students.
So, one of the mistakes I made earlier in my career is I thought I could build self-managing cattle handling facilities. No. I can build good cattle handling facilities, but you’ve got to have the management the well-trained stockmanship to go along with it. So stockmanship doesn’t get enough credit. Let’s take a person who works on finding sick cattle and a feed yard, a pen writer. That’s a highly skilled job, to find the animals when they’re just starting to get sick. Anybody can find them when they’re really sick. But you want to find them when they’re just starting to get sick. And learning low stress methods of cattle handling. That’s going to take some work. And people underestimate it. People want “the thing” … the magic computer, the magic drug, the magic smart board (in) the classroom they want that more than they want the management … which would be the good teacher, or the person who’s really good at working with the cattle quietly. But not enough behavior’s taught in the schools. So one thing that I talked about my article is I had a list of just basic things if you’re going to be going into working with cattle and livestock. Some basic behavior principles you need to know. Things like bull safety, for example. Basic principles of learning.
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Watkins: Broadly speaking, Temple’s article lays out seven elements of basic information that she advocates every student-researcher who plans to work with farm animals should be trained in. Given our interest in multidisciplinary and translational science, Doug and I were interested in learning her perspective on one of these in particular: the importance of communication with producers and scientists in other fields.
Grandin: I was a terrible student. I didn’t do much studying at all in high school, but by the time I got to ninth grade my writing skills were better than some of the graduate students today. I’ll never forget they three and a half hour trip on a plane where I took a 20-page double-spaced paper and I had to copy edit it. And it took me longer the than it did to read it for content. But I’ve helped this student to learn. Another thing I helped her with was (how) to read her paper out loud. And I’ve talked to professors all over the country about this as I’ve been traveling, and they’ll tell me the same thing. And then I questioned the student. I find out she got through school without writing a book report, where you have to summarize a book and then critique it. Never had a teacher mark up her work.
And I just have a friend whose daughter just graduated with a four-year education degree, and her writing’s terrible. And her dad told me that, “I kind of took my good writing for granted until I saw my daughter’s terrible writing”. And I said, “The best Christmas present you can give your daughter is to mark those papers up and teach you how to write.” So we’re gonna have to communicate a whole lot better, and not just fall into jargon. And in my work on improving how cattle are handled, a very important part of my career was public speaking, and another important part of my career was writing. And one of the issues we’ve got right now with some of the graduate students and undergraduates in the last five years is very bad writing skills.
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Translating science into practice
Leigh: One of Temple’s most well-known inventions is the center track restrainer – a device she designed for holding livestock during stunning at large animal slaughtering plants – and which bears some resemblance to a “squeeze machine” that she now-famously devised at age 18 to help overcome problems with oversensitivity to touch resulting from her autism. So Ryan and I were curious to learn how she goes about translating ideas such as this between academia and her field.
Grandin: Now, in my career … for years, I designed livestock handling facilities. I’d go out and visit a ranch, a feedlot, or a meatpacking plant. Designing a system for them, and then I’d supervise its construction, and then help start it up. I’ve designed facilities for every major meat company. I designed a piece of equipment called the center track restrainer for beef cattle, and it’s in all the big plants. So I was out working with the plant engineering department and designing stuff out in the field. Did that for good solid 30 years, and also doing academia at the same time. So it’s interesting having … being in both of these things that gives you an insight. You know, in academia, they might say, “Well you’re not talking about something scientific enough.” Then, if you used too much jargon, then the people in the field don’t understand it. So I try to communicate in a way where they’re going to want to listen.
So I work all the time as I, you know – people that raise cattle, people that raise pigs – and I found in talking to some people, they don’t even know hardly that the research has been done in animal behavior. And I’ve actually had people and where I’ve shown them how to look articles up online on something like Google Scholar, and they’ve gone, “Oh wow. You can just do that with your computer right there at the plant.” I go, “You sure can. You can look up all kinds of stuff – food safety stuff, stuff on engineering – all kinds of information is available.” And I’ve shown people how to do that, and they really like that. And I’ve done a number of things where we’ve partnered with somebody out in the field, and then I get the research published. But I’ve also seen where a problem with animal welfare has been fixed out in the field … So, just a couple of years ago I went and visited a broiler breeder farm with very aggressive roosters injuring hens in the broiler breeder colony. And they had solved the problem of the aggressive roosters. They had bred it out. But the problem is they hadn’t told anybody about it. So, here’s something where animal welfare for broiler chickens was improved, but it never got put in the literature – or even in advertisements – to let people know that they had fixed a really bad problem.
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Visual thinkers and mathematical thinkers
Watkins: Facilities and equipment which Temple designed are today present in almost all large beef processing plants. And when she first started her career designing cattle handling systems in the 1970s, she’s said that before even drawing out the plans for a new structure, she saw the finished product in her mind. Since that’s not how most plans are typically designed, Doug and I were curious to learn more about her advice for aspiring engineers and those in the industry who hire them.
Grandin: There’s two basic ways of designing equipment: there’s the visual thinkers like me, and then there’s the more mathematical thinkers. And you need both. Because then you can see how the skills can complement each other. I’ve written about that extensively and one of my books titled Thinking in Pictures. Visual thinkers are really good at thinking up methods for experiments, but then you need to have the statisticians to analyze the data. So let’s look at visual thinking mistakes like Fukushima. Engineers calculate risk: it’s not a very good idea when you live next to the sea to put your super-important emergency cooling pump, with it’s an electric motor, in a non-waterproof basement. And what I’ve learned about the mathematical mind is (that) they don’t see the water going in there.
Also, the whole mess with Boeing and the (737) MAX airplane. The first mistake they made was a visual thinking mistake. And when I finally figured out what an angle of attack sensor was, I couldn’t figure out that they’d made this mistake. They take this little tiny fragile finger that sticks out of the side of the plane – very fragile, a bird can break it off the plane. (Then they) wired it into active flight controls – only one of them; no back up – and forgot to tell the pilots. But when you visualize it I’m going, “How could you do this?” Now, when you think about it in some other ways, I can figure out why they did it and it was innocent originally in the beginning. They didn’t see it. And the results were disastrous. But, you see, I see it. And I can see a pigeon just coming along and taking that thing right off. Now, there’s a bit more complexity to it than that, but I don’t think you want to hear the whole thing about the Boeing MAX. But, if the initial visual thinking mistake had not been made – let’s say they had two sensors, which they actually have on a tanker plane – they’d still be flying around. So, I’m concerned we’re losing some of the visual thinkers because we’re not good at algebra. But when you look at something like a brand-new chicken processing plant, we’re having import a lot of the specialized equipment, because we’ve taken skilled trades out of the schools.
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Leigh: We followed up by asking Temple about her thoughts on the viability of vocational education for those students who may not have the interest in – or penchant for – attending college. We’ll hear what she had to say after this short break.
Leigh: Here again is Temple Grandin.
Grandin: In Europe they, you know, in ninth grade, decide whether the kids are gonna go into skilled trades. And they don’t stick their nose up at it. And you ought to see some of the equipment they make. These are all things that I call the “clever engineering department.” And you’re talking complicated stuff. So you look at these brand-new plants: we make the infrastructure – the building, the refrigeration, power systems, things like this – but all the specialized equipment that goes inside, very clever machines, those we’re losing the skills to make. They’re coming from Europe now. They were used to make all this stuff here. The Special Ed(ucation) Department builds the stuff. And when I was out working in construction – (in the) mid 70s, 80s, and 90s – I’m gonna estimate a quarter of the people that I worked with in welding and in design work were either autistic, dyslexic, or ADHD. A quarter of them with the Special Ed Department. Now those kids are growing up and never get a chance to even try a tool. How are they gonna know they like tools if they never try them? But the high-end skilled trades is one place where you don’t have to have a college degree. And I’m talking about electrician, plumber, welders who can build things and read drawings. All kinds of mechanics – cars, trains, boats, planes, fixing things, and heating and air conditioning. These are high-end skilled trades that are not going to go away. And you’ll have jobs for life. That’s one of the places where you don’t need a college education. And I worked with guys that were positively brilliant and, unfortunately, they have all retired now. They’re not getting replaced and we need these people.
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Watkins: In an article she wrote for Forbes last year, Temple points out that because schools have eliminated courses that teach students skilled trades, more and more specialized equipment is now imported into the United States from countries that have kept that in their curricula. So Doug and I asked her what impacts this phenomenon have had.
And this is stuff I talked about with Special Ed teachers because some of the little math kids that be really smart aren’t getting introduced to coding. And the visual thinkers like me are not getting introduced to tools; learning how to use tools when they’re kids. And … oh, electricians. We need those. We need mechanics (to) fix elevators, fix planes, think … fix cars and trucks. Even the self-driving cars (are) gonna have to be fixed. That stuff’s not going away. Job security. A(rtificial) I(ntelligence)’s not gonna replace that, we hope. And why am I getting into talking about these things? Because I’m seeing too many smart kids getting shunted into Special Ed (and) never get a chance to try tools. And then I visit the big state-of-the-art, super-fancy, brand-new chicken processing plant … and they imported all the specialized equipment. Because we don’t make it anymore. We had to import it … super-expensive to import that from Europe. Because we simply don’t make the stuff, because the kids that used to learn welding … they took shop out of the schools, and kids don’t get a playschool workbench anymore. It’s connected.
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The importance of management
Leigh: Temple’s article makes the point that selling new equipment is a much easier task than implementing lasting improvements. So we were interested in hearing about her experience with both designing equipment and in better ensuring that her clients actually use them.
Grandin: Well, there’s certain things. We put in a piece of equipment it’s going to make improvement. But people thought, “Oh, we put Internet in every school it’s gonna make teaching wonderful … Give every kid a laptop it makes teaching wonderful.” Well, it doesn’t. You know, having equipment’s good, but you also have to have the management. I used to think I could solve everything with equipment, now I can only solve half the problems with equipment. The other half is management. I worked with McDonald’s Corporation and Wendy’s on implementing their animal welfare auditing program. I’ve got a lot of papers on this. I developed a very simple, outcome-based, scoring system for meat plants, and if you couldn’t shoot dead 95% of the cattle on the first shot they throw you off the McDonald’s approved-supplier list. You couldn’t have cattle mooing and bellering when you were handling them. And these are things I could measure, and we held them to the standard.
So, I was able to take some of the older plants – old facilities – and with some repairs, and things like changing lighting, and non-slip flooring, we could get them to have good scores. Again, I say people want “the thing” more than they want the management. And what we did is we forced them to manage the operation. And out of 75 beef and pork plants only three had to buy something really expensive. Everybody else it was repairs, non-slip flooring, lighting, a supervision of cattle handling and pig handling – had to have much better supervision there. And three plant managers had to be removed to get three of them to improve. But you’ve got to have people that want to make stuff work. Because I’ve been in situations where maybe the owner of a company wants to make something work, but then if the foreman wants to make it fail, he’ll make it fail. I can remember computer-operated feeders for sows: when those first got put out they put them out prematurely, before they were perfected, and they failed. And it took 20 years before they got perfected. Now many, many people use that.
I mean, you don’t want to put any technology out system-wide until you’ve beta tested it and you know that it’s gonna work. With a new piece of equipment – or anything new being introduced – you’ve got to make sure your early adopters do not fail. So, for example, choosing the place we installed the first center track restrainer is really important. And I want to thank the Schuyler plant in Nebraska, and Mike Chappell, and Vaughn Bloom, who were the managers at the time for being behind the project. Because you want something to work: when you first start with it, you’ve got to have people there – your early adopters – that want to make it work. I cannot emphasize enough how important that is. Because I’ve got another plant assigned to me where the plant manager was not behind it – and unfortunately, the person who was behind it at the corporate office died – and then when he left the whole project just got cancelled. So I didn’t get to pick that plant, but when I got to pick the plant I made sure I had manager and assistant manager that wanted to make it work. I cannot emphasize that enough: anything that’s new, make sure your early adopters do not fail.
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Work outside of academia
Watkins: Temple’s paper argues that while there’s a shortage of academic positions for new PhDs … graduates in animal behavior subjects can nevertheless make excellent careers outside of academia. So, to close out our conversation, Doug and I asked about the careers which her own students have chosen to pursue.
Grandin: I’ve done a wide variety of different graduate students, and some of them … I’ve got two that have gone into academia. And I’ve got a number that have gone out in the industry, working in research labs. I have three doing that. Some that are working in the meat industry: one of them’s assistant superintendent at a meat plant. Another one’s running all the stockyards at a pig processing plant. So they’re doing a wide variety of things.
Now, one of the things that’s been a hold-back on academic positions is: if it totally is dependent on getting grants, that’s a really hard treadmill to get on. So I’ve actually counseled students: if the whole position is based on grants, you’d be better off to look for one where it’s much more teaching and extension. And I’ve got some students right now applying for that. Also I’ve had students go into like pharmaceutical industry, that was another place where I’ve had a student go.
But even chemistry students are having a hard time finding academic positions. Because I get [the journals] Science and Nature, so it’s not just my discipline. But across many disciplines getting faculty positions is hard. I’m seeing more and more articles in Science and Nature – and they have a whole section on careers now – about looking outside academics to jobs in industry. And in some ways that’s gonna help cross the divide.
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Links to article, bonus audio and other materials
Leigh: That was Temple Grandin discussing her article “Crossing the divide between academic research and practical application of ethology and animal behavior information on commercial livestock and poultry farms”, which she published June 28, 2019 in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. You’ll find a link to her paper at parsingscience.org/e67, along with bonus audio and other materials we discussed during the episode.
Watkins: Parsing Science also tweets news about the latest developments in science every day, including many brought to our attention by listeners like you. Follow us @parsingscience, and the next time you spot a science story that fascinates you, let us know, and we might just feature the researchers in a future episode.
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Preview of next episode
Leigh: Next time, in episode 68 of Parsing Science, we’ll be joined by Royel Johnson with The Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Education Policy Studies. He’ll discuss his systematic literature review of research on the college success of undergraduate youth formerly in foster care, a student population that has historically been underserved in higher education.
Royel Johnson: There’s somewhat over 430,000 youth in the foster care system. Only about 50% of them graduate from high school. Of that 50%, less than 20% enroll in college. And somewhere between 5 to 10 percent of them graduate from college. And my work has been trying to bring light to some of the experiences and challenges they face as it relates to accessing and succeeding in higher education.
Watkins: We hope that you’ll join us again.
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